October 08

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Getting the Hell Out by Rafi Mittlefehldt

The first time I took my husband home to Clear Lake, we went for a walk. There’s a path near my parents’ house that runs alongside a creek. The neighborhood association calls it a greenbelt, so I grew up thinking that greenbelts were manicured sidewalks, lined by carefully placed pine trees and mown grass, running along manmade drainage ditches in a planned community.

 

“It’s so quiet,” Damien said. He says it almost every time we go back. Every time, I think of the summer between high school and college.

 

– – –

 

For a long time I didn’t know what it was about a book that drew me in. I would look at my favorites and see such a disparate list. I could connect some dots, but not all.

 

Harry Potter hit me the same way it hit almost everyone, but why? Then, as if dying to be a cliche, I had a dream one night that I was a student at Hogwarts. I belonged to a House, I had a group of wizard friends, and even though I don’t think it was ever articulated, there was the sense throughout the dream that we were all on the precipice of a real adventure.

 

Dreams sometimes have a way of clarifying your thoughts, of making you sense a purer version of feelings that were already there. This was one of those.

 

Instantly I understood: I loved Harry Potter because the books built such a rich, fantastical world, showed an overwhelming amount of it to you, and most of all, made you feel as though you were on some grand journey.

 

I began seeing it in other books I loved. Jeff Hirsch’s Magisterium, and The Adventurer’s Guild by my friends, Zack Clark and Nick Eliopulos.

 

But there were other books I loved that didn’t fit this. I started mentally categorizing my favorites into broad groups.

 

Some I loved because of the elegance of their language.

 

Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy changed my life both for being the first gay novel I read, and for teaching me so much about crafting sentences and describing characters through tiny observations.

 

But elegance has many faces. Ann Dee Ellis’s This Is What I Did, a book written in the halting language of a traumatized 13-year-old boy, showed me that simplistic language can be used in smart, purposeful ways.

 

At some point I realized I loved books with alternating points of view, when they are done well. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife was the one that crystalized that in my mind; I remember being taken by it immediately, watching two characters tell two versions of the same story.

 

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, stuck with me mostly for the voice. Each of six alternating characters so different from the others — I still can’t imagine how he was able to produce such a breadth of human personality.

 

Or I just liked the characters themselves, their richness and often, honestly, how badass they were — like Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, and Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club.

 

– – –

 

But I like patterns, and it was years before I saw one in the full list. Even within the same genre or style or century of publication, my favorites varied so much. Some were classics, some new; some critically acclaimed, some with middling reviews; some popular, some not.

 

Then I looked at the books I write, and started finding similarities in setting. It Looks Like This takes place in a comfortable, quiet, boring town. What Makes Us revolves around fictional Kiley Springs, a suburb of Houston that I meant as a stand-in for Clear Lake. I’ve only just started a third novel, but already it’s sticking to this theme.

 

Up until the summer before college, my world had been carefully structured by outside forces, days and weeks arranged with such precision that life events moved in tandem with the seasons. I could clock my progression by the temperature outside. School, summer, school, summer — twelve years of that and the rhythm gets in your bones.

 

The last few months of high school brought me within sight of my first real unknown. There would be another summer, and then… What, exactly? School, sure, but a whole different kind, in an unfamiliar setting, with a host of responsibilities and freedoms suddenly thrust upon me.

 

The closer I got, the more desperate I was to go. This comfortable house in this quiet suburb I’d known since age 6, the only place that had ever felt like home, was suddenly stifling. I loved Clear Lake, and I still do. But I needed to get out.

 

As children, we’re born into a world of restraints and limitations that bleed into our teen years. The universe we can explore is limited to what we can access on our own, and access is hard to come by without money or legal recognition. After a while, restraint feels like captivity.

 

Suburbs are so great at capturing and then provoking that captivity teens can feel. Your world is tinier in a suburb or small town than in a city. But you can still see pieces of what else there is.

 

Living in Clear Lake left me with this certainty that there is so much out there waiting for me to experience if I could only escape.

 

Do you see it?

 

Now, I’m drawn to books with characters who are just about to set foot on a path that will change everything. I’m drawn to stories of ordinary lives wanting not to be; of people taking leaps; of characters who have the vaguest sense that they are on the edge of a great escape.

 

I’m drawn to Harry Potter leaving Privet Drive, to Zed and Brock journeying past the walls of Freestone, to Nathan building a secret world with Roy, to Henry lurching through time, to Ruth burning her world down, to a single soul shooting through five centuries.

 

All these years later, and I’m still drawn to characters who just need to get out.

 

 

Rafi Mittlefehldt is the author of What Makes Us, out Oct. 15, and It Looks Like This. He lives in Philadelphia with his husband Damien and dog Betty. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram (@rafimitt) or visit his page at http://www.rafimitt.com.